When the 2020 lockdowns first began, many took the opportunity to tackle projects they’d been putting off, from repainting the walls to finally writing a novel. Most people just wound up making bread. For many, the radical break from routine took a considerable toll on their mental health.
Playwright Harrison David Rivers was no different. As a Black gay man, the combination of COVID-19 lockdowns, George Floyd protests and more pushed his muse into some unexpected places. Having been commissioned for new work by San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center (where he world-premiered his 2017 play “This Bitter Earth”), Rivers channeled his anxiety into “Interlude,” the story of gay Black writer Jesse Howard who’s forced to spend quarantine with his conservative parents in Kansas.
Originally produced in 2020 as a solo show and audio play, “Interlude” is directed by ShawnJ West, who again collaborated with Rivers for this two-person staged version, New Conservatory’s first live show in over a year. I recently spoke with Rivers about his play and the world still fighting COVID-19. The conversation has been edited for length.
How and when did the New Conservatory Theatre Center commission you for the play?
In 2015, Ed Decker commissioned me to write what became “This Bitter Earth.” Since it premiered at NCTC in 2017, we’ve been hoping to work together again on another project. The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity. “Interlude” was commissioned as an audio drama in the summer of 2020 and then as a stage play earlier this spring.
Other than normal COVID solitude, what inspired you to write the play?
I love all of my characters, but sometimes you fall hard for one in particular. It could be because their story feels unfinished. Or because it turns out that years later, they have more to say. Or sometimes it’s because the experience of writing them, of writing for them, was so transformative you want to feel that kind of artistic exhilaration again. Jesse Howard is one of those characters for me. And the chance to check in with him five years after the events of “This Bitter Earth” in the midst of a pandemic in his childhood home — irresistible.
Writer’s block plays a crucial role for your main character — have you found that your creative output has increased or decreased during the pandemic?
I’m a much better human when I write every day — just ask my husband. It’s essential in good times and even more so in times of stress. I’ve written more during the pandemic than during any other period in my life. It hasn’t always been easy or good, but it’s been key to my emotional wellbeing.
With the parent-child relationship playing such a vital role in the play, did your parents hear the original audio version?
You know, I’m actually not sure. I’m terrible about sharing my work with people, and my family is no exception. They are well aware that I draw from my life in my plays. I’m pretty sure they don’t always love that part of my work, but they’re very supportive.
Why change it from a solo audio drama to a two-person play? How did adding a role for the mother character change things?
For the stage version, we wanted to open the play up, see a bit more of Jesse’s world, give him someone to work through things with in real time. Also, I love writing mothers and sons; especially mothers and gay sons. It’s a very special dynamic, I think. Messy and complicated. Epic, really.
With theaters slowly reopening, have you been able to see any live shows? Did you feel safe attending them?
I’ve been in London since August and have seen quite a bit of theater here. I was definitely a bit anxious about it at first — being in contained spaces with large numbers of people, but it’s been OK. Theaters are being careful and, by and large, theatergoers are too. The thing I wasn’t expecting was how emotional it would be — not just to return to seeing shows, but to workshopping and rehearsing. My first time back in a theater, I started to cry as soon as the lights dimmed. I was so happy to be there. I’d missed it so much.
In addition to the pandemic, theater has had to confront its own racist history (and present). One Black man to another, how have you witnessed your own race and/or sexuality be used against you in the theater world?
So much of the racism and homophobia I’ve faced has been unconscious. It’s white-led institutions assuming that one size fits all. That what works for a white artist will automatically work for me. And, if or when I express that it doesn’t, it’s them reacting in a way that essentially forces me to backtrack, to say, “You know what? I’m sorry, it’s fine, I’ll make it work,” when it’s not and it doesn’t. If anything, this particular moment — the double pandemic — has forced me to take a hard look at the industry and specifically at the ways in which I’ve neglected to advocate for myself within it.
I was raised to keep my head down — to do the work and to not make a fuss. I’ve been easy; made things easy for white-led institutions and their leaders, by keeping my thoughts and feelings largely to myself. I feared that if I shared them, I would be labeled difficult or unreasonable; that I would not be invited back. As a result, I’ve often found myself less than taken care of in the American theater. I am uninterested in sacrificing my health and safety for the American theater any longer. I want to work with people who respect me (all of me and everything that comes with me) and with institutions who practice what they preach.
Do you feel any progress has actually been made, other than an abundance of new mission statements?
What’s the line from “Caroline, or Change”? “Change come fast and change come slow, but change come.” Of course, it hasn’t been as widespread or as comprehensive as I’d hoped, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It is. I’ve seen it. Experienced it. In specific institutions with specific people. Folks who are unwilling to continue to do things in the old way. It gives me hope.
Will you be back in the United States in time for the opening or any time during the run?
Sadly, I won’t be able to make it back for the opening, but I’ve already booked my tickets to the closing performance. I’m super excited!
The original audio version was exclusively online, whereas this version is exclusively in-person. How does streaming fit into the new landscape of theater?
Streaming is a boon as far as access is concerned. It makes it possible for people from a wide range of backgrounds and geographies to experience local art from the comfort of their homes. Moving forward, I would love to see streaming options continue to be made available.
What’s the audience you most hope will see the show?
Anyone who has had a parent. Or had a child. Or lost a loved one. Or survived a pandemic.
IF YOU GO: Interlude
Presented by New Conservatory Theatre Center
Where: 25 Van Ness Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; closes Nov. 7
Tickets: $36 to $65
Contact: (415) 861-8972, nctcsf.org
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.